Liability Circuits: Quality Construction and Private Halal-Certification
Following the recent boom in the halal food market, private halal certification initiatives are expanding globally. Different from their secular analogues such as organic food certification that primarily traces product standards, halal certification aims to trace process standards related to procedures to be followed in production, transportation and allocation of goods and services (Waarden & Dalen, 2011). While the former can in principle be analyzed through technical expertise and laboratory methods, process standards are harder to trace and may therefore trigger suspicion and uncertainty around compliance of halal products to the claimed religious tenets. How do halal producers, distributors and sellers ensure and communicate that their products are indeed in line with religiously-informed requirements? And if globalization of supply chains only adds to the opacity of the quality of halal products, why are we still witnessing a huge boom in this market niche?
My analysis draws from the fifteen-month fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, where halal certification agencies and their accreditors have gained popularity among a growing number of businesses in the past decade. I engage with the broader strand of research on certification and labeling initiatives (e.g. Bartley, 2007; Schneiberg & Bartley, 2008), but aim to move beyond the key assumptions of this literature that third-party certification is mostly about tackling information deficiency in the market (Christmann & Taylor, 2006; Potoski & Prakash, 2004) and promoting transparency and accountability among businesses (Bartley, 2007, 2011; Guthman, 2007). Instead, following studies within economic sociology (e.g., Bandelj 2012, Barbalet 2009, Beckert 2011, Zelizer 2009, 2010), I shift the attention from the measurability and effectiveness of tools that certifiers employ to the sentiments and narratives that entrepreneurs and certifiers express as they seek to translate intangible assets of business practices into rational market value. Informed by these studies and accounts of my respondents, I contend that quality is not a naturally given value, and is an outcome of a creative process of construction by a constellation of actors, who are involved in judgment, evaluation, validation, and measurement of new products and services. I explain how third-party forms of governance became an inextricable part of the Islamic market, particularly due to their ability to articulate and sustain the emotive power of newly acquired pious identities among entrepreneurs.
Despite the “renaissance” in the religious sphere within this former Soviet Central Asian region, it is still common however for the local devout Muslims to identify as “newly pious” (McBrien, 2008). Most of the interviewed pious entrepreneurs noted their newness, remarking that they are only learning the ropes of running a business that complies to rules and norms of Islam. These hesitations in suggesting their companies as a model of “truly Islamic business” are further amplified by the state’s resistance to offer full economic freedom. Moreover, the dizzying array of businesses capitalize on the labels “halal” or “Islamic” that many pious entrepreneurs criticize for diluting and even discrediting the reputation of genuine Muslim entrepreneurs. As a result, many pious entrepreneurs voiced sentiments of self-doubt in following all the “right” parameters of an Islamic business, for what constitutes halal is multidimensional and extends from the rules in food production to rules in hygiene and sanitation, storage and distribution along with broader tenets of “Islamic way of life” (Waarden & Dalen, 2011). This uncertainty however is not typical only within this particular context, or even broadly within the halal market niche. Scholars have studied many other instances, where quality of goods/services in the market may be opaque. This includes investment worthiness of financial products (Mackenzie, 2011; Sinclair, 2014), value of antique commodities (Bogdanova 2013), worth and esteem of schools (Zanten 2013) and even job candidates in the labor market (Gerlach 2013). The common consensus among these studies then is that judgment devices, tools or authorities are necessary to enable market actors to make evaluations and judgments about the quality and worth of certain commodities. In Central Asian halal markets, I argue that certification agencies came to play this role of judgment devices by constructing liability circuits. Liability circuits denote a circular flow of resources, where certifiers ease the anxieties of those concerned with the authenticity and appropriateness of their business practices by taking on the moral responsibility of backing them; and where the feeling of confidence is gained both by the certified and the certifiers as they engage in the construction of shared meanings about carrying out “morally pure,” “spiritually nourishing,” “honorable” business practices. Halal certification agencies, I argue, have come to attest to the genuine intentions and authenticity of pious identities among entrepreneurs as much as the halal-ness of their products.